The Rice-Sprout Songand The Rouge of the North
University of California, each $14.95 (paper)
A newspaper obituary declared of Eileen Chang (1920-1995): "there are no survivors." The stock phrase neatly sums up her oblique position in modern Chinese literature. Her obsession with privacy made her known as "the Garbo of Chinese letters," and photographs reveal a woman whose elegance and contemplative introspection fully justify that title. Nevertheless, from out of the frenzy of renown that surrounded her, the sheer quality of Chang's prose emerges clearly, and her voice–raw, low, exquisitely modulated–has a sound like none other in the canon of Chinese or, for that matter, American prose stylists.
Two novels first written by Chang in English and subsequently rewritten by her in Chinese have been reissued in new editions, with informative prefatory essays by David Der-wei Wang. The Rice-Sprout Song (1955), also adapted for television on NBC, provocatively subverts the standard narrative of the land-reform novel (a recognized sub-genre in modern Chinese fiction). Chang's depiction of life in a small village poses difficult questions about the power of any grandiose political scheme such as Maoism to "rectify" the inequalities and prejudices that sustain "immiseration" in rural life. As a work of literature, though, The Rice-Sprout Song is notable primarily for its lyrically luminous yet unflinchingly realistic style. Her timing was also extraordinarily precocious: a groundswell of 1980s dissent literature (collected in such works as Geremie Barme and John Minford's anthology Seeds of Fire) persistently refuted the relevance of any conventional understanding of "politics" to the tasks confronting China at the end of the twentieth century–thus finally bringing Chinese intellectuals around to a position Eileen Chang had staked out in 1955.
The Rouge of the North (1967), based somewhat upon Chang's own earlier novella The Golden Cangue (1943), casts a similarly critical eye upon stereotypical May Fourth clichés about Chinese womanhood. Yindi, the novel's unhappy protagonist, grows from a frustrated, lonely young wife into a bedridden, alienated opium addict in a narrative packed with details derived from both Chang's memories of the life enjoyed by wealthy households in old Shanghai and the abuse she seems to have suffered at the hands of her own stepmother. In such details Chang's poetic humor and unerringly apt appraisal of human character emerge with switchblade precision: "Under his wet-looking greenish eyebrows and thick lashes," she writes of Yindi observing a privileged male member of the household, "the eyes were like the underwater black pebbles in the bowl of flowers." Eileen Chang's characters stand on the brink of an abyss, frightened, desperate, yet forever caught in the light of the author's own singularly ironic poise. It's the counterpoint of that poise against the background of her vivid settings that makes Chang such a compulsively readable storyteller.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $23
The English writer Jim Crace is a landscape artist in prose. In Quarantine he evokes the desert wilderness of Jesus' forty-day fast in language that is exotically spare and highly particular, flinty. In this parched geography, a miracle might happen because so little else can be expected to. Crace's hypnotic writing is heavy with heat ("The salty scrubland was a lazy and malicious host. Even lizards lifted their legs for fear of touching it too firmly"). His story is a fable of searching, and of good and evil, that can't be separated from the sand and rocks and caves he so meticulously paints. Taking from the gospels only the simple lead of Jesus' pre-ministry "quarantine" of prayer and fasting, Crace adds four other desert pilgrims, all looking for something. His stand-in for the devil is a merchant named Musa who, sick unto dying, has been left behind with his wife Miri by his family's caravan. In Miri's absence, Jesus enters Musa's tent and inadvertently (it seems) heals him. Through the rest of the novel Musa commits one monstrous act of inhumanity after another, all the while seeking and tempting his savior. As Jesus becomes more spirit than man, this demon, believably and terrifyingly, turns into a kind of evangelist. Quarantine is a brilliantly imagined work, as stark asThe Sheltering Sky, but with more humanity.
The Short History of a Prince
Random House, $23
Jane Hamilton's forté as a novelist is her empathy in characterization, a strength that made her Book of Ruth such an engrossing, terrifying drama of desperate Midwestern life. In her new book, that gift, that skill, emerges as a real coup de théâtre. Here she disappears entirely into the body and psyche of one Walter McCloud, who, in alternating chapters, is seen as a teenage ballet enthusiast discovering his homosexuality and a man in his late 30s trying to re-define himself and his relations with his family. It is a tale told by a savant, and Hamilton's only failing (aside from a few narrative conveniences) is in making the young Walter excessively precocious, oppressively clever. He is her finest creation to date, but she loves him almost too much. She also loves his fatally ill brother, his ballerina friend Susan, his opera-mad (and crypto-lesbian) aunt, and everything about the ballet. And when Walter falls in love, you feel every tremor of his bliss. Reading this generous story of art and passion, I kept thinking of Willa Cather and The Song of the Lark.
Fortune is a River: Leonardo da Vinci and Niccolo Machiavelli's Magnificent Dream to Change the Course of Florentine History
Roger D. Masters
Free Press, $24
As it snakes through Tuscany and into the heart of Florence, the Arno river's serene natural beauty belies its turbulent history. In Fortune is a River, Roger Masters shows that for rival city-states during the Renaissance, the Arno promised military and mercantile dominance to whoever could control its path. Among the many who tried were Leonardo da Vinci and Niccolo Machiavelli, who together in 1504 undertook an ambitious enterprise to manipulate the river for Florence's gain. Their plan was two-pronged: first, to divert the water supply away from Pisa, so that Florence could defeat the feisty Pisans in their epic war, and second, to give Florence direct access to the sea. The colossal engineering task proved too difficult, and was abandoned as a humbling failure. Though ostensibly centered on this ill-fated project, Fortune is a River provides an illuminating portrait of its famed protagonists' personalities. Leonardo, torn between pragmatism and wanderlust, optimistically determines that science can harness nature, while the more realistic and cunning Machiavelli writes of the flooding river as the embodiment of a capricious fortune. The Florentine Renaissance is familiar territory for historians and readers alike, but Masters's approach invites the reader along a lively journey into unexplored sides of two renowned figures.